In the first chapter of Kerry Howley’s Thrown, which is probably the most bizarre and fascinating book I’ve read this year, a graduate student in philosophy wanders out of a conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on phenomenology–the philosophical study of consciousness–and into a mixed-martial-arts event that happens to be taking place in the same convention center. She stays, though she’s not sure why, and during the last fight of the night she has an extraordinary experience. A kind of rapturous clarity comes over her: “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses, such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across my mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.”
Somehow, witnessing the sweaty, brutally physical humanity of the fighters frees her from the limitations of her own state of personhood. It’s a breakthrough in applied phenomenology. “This exhibition,” she thinks later, “whatever it may be, has ushered ecstatic experience back into the world.” The grad student, whose name is Kit, will spend the rest of the book chasing that high.
Something like this, although not exactly this, probably actually happened. Thrown is billed as nonfiction, but its author is neither a grad student in philosophy nor named Kit–Kit is Howley’s fictional alter ego, which she has adopted for reasons I don’t fully understand. But the fighters are real, and so is Kit/Howley’s obsession with them. She spends months following two in particular: Sean Huffman, a lumbering, gnarly-eared journeyman, then 32, and Erik “New Breed” Koch, then 21, a pale, whippet-like prodigy. She attaches herself to their entourages and watches them train, eat, get drunk, get high, drive around, talk smack, play video games and, of course, fight.
Having read Thrown–and squinted at actual footage of both men fighting, in miniature, on YouTube–I still have no real idea why cage fighting induces a state of ecstasy in Kit. But I know that it does, because of the way she writes about it:
Sean moves like a fat man on hot coals, never still for a moment but each step fractions of an inch off the ground. Cobb jabs. Sean’s back is to me and he vibrates hard twice in time with the glorious unfurling of Cobb’s arms. They dance in my direction; Sean has gone red in the soft skin under both eyes. When Cobb leans into one leg and shoots the other across Sean’s white calf I hear the knock of bone against bone and feel the crowd hear it behind my back, the small parts of 3,000 ears vibrating in tune.
The precision of Howley’s prose reminds me of Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace: she’s so involved with the fight, it’s as if she were trying to eat it with words. Howley writes like someone who’s been flayed, all nerve endings exposed, no barriers between her and the world around her. She writes like somebody in ecstasy.
Thrown also narrates the long troughs between the fights, which are decidedly unecstatic. Outside the octagon the fighters are like sleepwalkers, trudging through dead-end jobs, only intermittently solvent, bouncing from spare couch to cheap motel to crappy apartment. They’re utterly uninterested in real life. The book’s title is a wry joke–there ain’t no thrones in Thrown–but it’s also an allusion to a Heideggerian concept that Kit glosses as the “poignant sense of having been hurled into the world without preparation or consent.” Only in the octagon can the fighters wake up and briefly float free of their existential predicament. To them we’re the sleepwalkers. “It’s interesting to me,” one fighter says, “that so many people are out of touch with what it means to be alive.”
Thrown is also a very funny book, and some of the comedy comes from the extreme disparity between Kit’s hyperactive verbal intelligence and the utter intellectual inertness of her subjects. The fighters are, almost without exception, profoundly boring: the first time Kit meets Erik he spends an hour showing her pictures on his phone of meals he’s eaten (“a roast beef sandwich, big as a baby, glistening with grease”). She transcribes their inane conversations the way Boswell transcribed Johnson: “Have you tried blueberry muffin tops?” “No.” “You haven’t lived.”
But Kit never condescends to her subjects. She seems to get that her extreme academic preciousness is in its own way as absurd as the fighters’ total lack of it, and that although their genius is purely physical, it’s still genius. “To watch Erik move,” she writes, “was to watch Cartesian dualism disproved.” And Kit’s not always easy company herself. She’s a world-class observer but also an insufferable grad student. (I say this as a recovering insufferable grad student myself.) She’s pretentious and self-involved, and sometimes she seems interested in the fighters only for the next hit of transcendence she can get off them.
But even Kit’s occasional unpleasantness is oddly refreshing. Most writers these days work overtime to be likable, but she’s too honest for that (if that’s something you can say about a fictional construct). And if she doesn’t always care about the fighters as people, she always makes the reader care. My interest in professional fighting is nil, but I hung on the outcome of every fight like a rabid fan. When Sean tries to explain to Kit why he fights, he can only say, “I like to feel things.” Me too. Martial arts doesn’t do it for me, but great writing like Thrown does.
TO READ AN EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM KERRY HOWLEY’S BOOK, GO TO time.com/thrown
This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.